Search Results for: Caravel plumbing

Solo traveler

The kittens are taking over.  I say that because they have commanded Eleanor & Emma to change plans, and stay here in Tucson another week to give them more TLC. That means I’ll be towing the Airstream solo, about 2,000 miles, to Jackson Center OH and the Airstream factory.

Only one other time have I towed the Airstream such a long way by myself.  That was back in December 2009, picking up the Caravel in Michigan and towing it through a lot of freezing weather all the way to Tucson. Without my traveling companions it was, in a word, boring (except when the window shattered).

So I’m not exactly pumped by this idea.  On one hand it will be a little easier to travel on only my schedule. I can cover more miles per day by myself, because there are fewer stops and distractions.  On the other hand, I’ll miss all the little rituals and pleasures we have developed amongst ourselves to make long trips like this more engaging. Much of those come from the unnecessary stops and distractions that Eleanor and Emma inspire.

I’ll have to try to relish solo travel, and not rush through the country too much. Pre-planning helps with this; just having a few key destinations along the way to visit, even if they are relatively mundane, keeps me from zooming by and ending up with highway malaise. Maybe I’ll drop in on that restaurant in Missouri that’s in a cave, or finally visit Eureka Springs AR, or seek out some Route 66 stuff.

The prospect of an Airstream-related problem while I’m towing solo is an aspect that doesn’t bother me much. I’ve gotten comfortable with the reality of on-the-road repairs. This comfort comes from having dealt with all kinds of troubles in the past: electrical issues, brakes failing, tire tread separations (many), rain water leaks, plumbing leaks, hitch problems, loss of a wheel, awning damage, bumper ripped off … you name it—we’ve experienced it. It’s never fun but at least every time something happens and you successfully deal with it, your store of knowledge and confidence grows.

Although the trip starts next weekend, I’m doing the final prep now because this week I will be flying to Seattle to attend the annual Airstream Dealer Meeting. My primary role is to be there as part of the Airstream community, representing just how beloved the brand is.  My goal is to convince more dealers that they are missing out if they aren’t part of Airstream Life and Outside Interests. My expectation is that it will rain. But it should be interesting and even fun, so I’m looking forward to it.

When I get back and the Airstream launches this weekend I’ll probably blog daily until I get to Jackson Center. Given the time of year I’m sure I’ll be dodging thunderstorms and even hail along the way, but other than that and the certainty of a visit to Wal-Mart, the trip is a story waiting to be written.  Come along for the ride–and let me know if there’s a place along the way I should visit.

Are you ready for a vintage project?

I got a call today from a good friend who is considering whether to plunge into an Airstream project. He’s got an older Airstream Classic 310 motorhome, which is one of the early models with an aluminum body. Those old Classics are basically an Airstream trailers mounted on a bread truck chassis, and the only major difference is the length.

Last night I met another friend at a doughnut shop to talk about a possible 1965 Airstream Safari project. Very different from the motorhome, but the basic issues were the same. Both of my friends wanted to get my opinion on the projects, and some insight as to whether the Airstreams were worth the effort.

After these conversations I began to think about all the times I’ve been asked by people about their vintage projects. Since starting the magazine in 2004, and working on a couple of my own vintage projects, I’ve probably seen several hundred vintage trailer restorations, refurbishments, and customizations. I have no idea how many we’ve published in Airstream Life but certainly dozens.

Vintage Airstream projects are always happening. Some never stop, and many never are finished. There’s always someone who wants to decide whether it makes sense to tackle a project, and I guess that’s why it’s common that I get asked about it regularly.

Vintage Airstream
Vintage Airstream at Region 1 WBCCI rally, Connecticut

I’ve come to realize that it’s not the trailer or motorhome you start with that really matters. Certainly you can make your life a lot easier if you start with something that’s not a total wreck, but the real determinant of a successful restoration is the person who takes on the challenge.

Not only do you need to have (or acquire) some skills and knowledge, but you also need to have a commitment to the project. A full restoration takes a lot of time. Sure, you can do a shabby job in 100 hours, but I’m not talking about those sorts of “eBay restorations” where someone makes over a vintage trailer cosmetically for quick re-sale (hint: look for a quickie polish job that looks swirly in bright sun, black-and-white checked floor, and Coca-Cola memorabilia) or ignores serious structural problems, or dumps a bunch of household cabinetry and appliances into it (thus turning a lightweight travel trailer into an unbalanced and crippled condo on wheels).

A more sensitive and attentive vintage restoration or customization (the difference being whether you try to match the original intent or modernize it) will go deep into the Airstream and take hundreds of hours, at least. How deep?  As deep as it takes. Typically this means gutting the interior (saving re-usable interior appliances and woodwork), dealing with frame rust and floor rot, and replacing lots of parts that won’t be noticed by the average person but which really matter.

I’m talking about parts like under-floor insulation, wiring, and plumbing. You work on these things because you don’t plan to flip the end product for a quick buck. You work on these things because you want to end up with something that respects the intent of the original Airstream: light weight, structurally strong, travel-worthy on any road and in all weather, and efficient with resources (water, propane, electricity). That’s how the Airstreams were designed, and it pains me to see vintage “restorations” which eviscerate that intent.

Caravel aluminum replacement

Of course, there’s no law that says you have to keep an Airstream true to its original design. Many cool and creative new uses have been found for old Airstreams, and I respect that because it’s a great example of adaptive re-use. Unlike just about every “white box” travel trailer or motorhome made in the last sixty years, Airstreams have an amazing capacity to be re-used as pop-up stores, promotional trailers, coffee shops and cafés, toy haulers, meeting rooms, and art. Make an Airstream into anything you want, but if you are going to make it back into a travel trailer, at least be sure it’s a good one.

Sometimes people go a little crazy on their restorations. I have seen friends lavish so much attention on every detail that they’ve spent 2,000 hours or more, working night after night in their garage to produce a museum-perfect restoration. Others I know have spent well over $200,000 on a personalized vintage Airstream.  I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with that. Like concours-quality automotive restorations, those Airstreams are inspirational. Here’s to the crazy ones; we need them to show us the ultimate standard, even if we aren’t going to achieve that level ourselves.

Gail Buck vintage Airstream
Gail Buck and her vintage Airstream

To the friends I spoke with this week, I gave the same basic advice: don’t look so much at the trailer you’re starting with. Look at yourself. Guaranteed: the project will take more money and more time than you expected, and you will definitely “invest” more money than the outcome is worth on the open market. Those things don’t matter.

Vintage Airstream at VTJ 08What really matters is whether a vintage restoration is how you want to spend your time and money. If you just want a trailer to go camping, there are easier and quicker routes. A full-blown vintage restoration is not a practical thing, it’s a commitment to the point almost of being a lifestyle. If you sell the project after you’ve started, you will lose money. Do it not because it makes any sense, but rather because you really want to do it.

And, I should mention, because you really want to be seen in it.  Let’s face it, a big part of the reward for spending countless nights and weekends painstakingly re-building and installing parts is the praise and admiration the vintage rig  generates once it is on the road.  People love to see cool vintage trailers and motorhomes. You’ll get invited to be in vintage shows, and random people in campgrounds and parking lots will ask for tours. A really good restoration makes you a celebrity—or to be entirely accurate, it makes you the manager for a celebrity.

Likewise, if you really need the finished product because your life-long dream is to operate a mobile coffee shop or kettle corn popper or pop-up store, you might have good motivation to do a good job and actually finish it.

But don’t look solely to the reward. You have to enjoy the process. If you see the project as a chance to learn new skills, demonstrate your chops as a woodworker/ plumber/ electrician/ interior designer/ upholsterer/ polisher/ metalworker (and all those skills do usually come in to play at some point), or just have an excuse to buy lots of new tools and set up a cool workshop, you’ve probably got a good motivation to tackle and finish a vintage Airstream project.

Having done a couple of projects, I feel I’ve learned a lot that I could apply to another vintage trailer. The third one, I’m certain, would be much easier. Once in a while the temptation arises, but I’ve been able to quash it on the grounds that I don’t have the working space or the time to devote. (The fact that I have absolutely no need for a third Airstream in my life hardly enters into it. As I said, you do these things for no practical reason.) Someday perhaps I will have that free time and working space, and then I’ll have to fight hard against the Siren call of aluminum.

In the meantime, I wish my friends well as they consider their projects. If they take the plunge, I hope they commit to the fullest because that’s how they’ll get the best result. And I’ll be happy to pitch in when I can or provide long-distance advice. If you can’t do a project yourself, it’s almost as gratifying to see someone else do a good job on one.  We’ll have more projects in future issues of Airstream Life magazine, too.

Readying for a solo mission

After a few weeks of concentrating on non-travel stuff, I’m ready to get out on the road again–and back to a favorite destination.

For the several years we had a tradition of spending time in the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park around New Year’s Eve. It has always been a relaxing experience, slightly tinged with magic on those cold dark desert nights, where coyote howls are more common than fireworks or music.  We always ran into friends and fellow Airstreamers on that trip, and during the days we hiked and explored the back roads, badlands, washes, and mountains of the park.

Two years ago the tradition was broken when our disc brake actuator failed, preventing us from leaving the driveway.  Last year, we elected to stay home and see Paula Poundstone at Tucson’s downtown Rialto theater.  It seems like the spell that drew us annually had finally been broken.

Part of that is the result of changing circumstances.  We’re all older now, and we’ve got more going on in our lives than ever before.  Priorities change.  Hard decisions have to be made about how to spend time and money.  Eleanor and Emma have obligations near home for the next couple of weeks that they can’t shirk.  But for me, there’s still a faint siren song I can hear from Anza-Borrego, and as winter deepens the song gets a little louder.

So this year Eleanor has encouraged me to take the trip solo, in the tiny 1968 Airstream Caravel.  I rarely travel via Airstream without my family, so at first I resisted. This is something we’ve always done together.  Unless I have a defined goal for the trip, I always feel like I’m just wasting time and fuel driving hundreds of miles solo.  It feels lonely and strange to be camping out in the desert by myself, although know people who love doing that, for the privacy and peacefulness.

I’m trying to capture that spirit as I gear up for this trip.  Perhaps while I am out there I will find inspiration in the expanse, and write something fantastic and new.  Perhaps I will meet new friends and have an adventure out in the wilderness.  Maybe I’ll finally get a good photo of a scorpion or tarantula (probably not—wrong time of year).

At least I know that a few friends will be there as well.  I’m planning to meet up with Brian & Leigh from Aluminarium, which is always fun.  They have become hard-core boondockers and it’s fascinating to see them working their high-tech jobs in the open desert half a mile from the nearest road.

I’ll also spend a few days in the desert with Stevyn & Troy, who are new to Airstream full-timing and boondocking.  I feel slightly responsible for them because last September when we stayed at their home in Missouri, we encouraged them to try full-timing and now they are.  With Brian & Leigh’s help, we are going to give them a practical taste of “Boondocking 101” for a few days.  It will be a steep learning curve for them, but fun for us to pass on the knowledge.  If you are a Airstreamer who will be in the Borrego area this weekend or next week, let me know and I’ll send you the coordinates.

While prepping the Caravel the past few days, I’ve been feeling like a total noob.  The Caravel hasn’t been used by me since October 2011, and it has undergone quite a bit of renovation work since, so it isn’t pre-packed for travel like the Safari.  As a result, I have to think carefully about everything that will be needed for the trip:  tools, clothes, food, hoses, kitchen supplies, office equipment—everything, right down to the tow ball. (The Caravel tows on a ball, whereas the Safari uses a square “stinger” for the Hensley hitch.)  It’s amazing how much stuff I take for granted because the Safari is so well set up for full-timing, and always kept prepped to go.  Half the time I can’t even remember where things are supposed to go in the Caravel.

Eleanor has been helping in her usual way, by providing me with abundant food and remembering to check for the practical items that I would typically forget.  (“Dish soap and a sponge?  Oh yeah, that.”)  Together we will get it done and I’ll be well-equipped in the end, but it is taking much longer than I would have thought to pack a 17-foot trailer for five or six days of bachelor travel.  (Yes, I’m bringing the TBM gear, too!)

You might recall that a few weeks ago I finished a project to completely re-plumb the Caravel’s fresh water system.  I also had a new power hitch jack installed, and new safety chains.  And earlier in the year I replaced the propane regulator and associated hoses & hardware.  Part of the reason for taking the Caravel to Anza-Borrego is to road-test all that work.  It would be much easier to take the Safari, and the fuel economy isn’t much different for the big trailer, but Brett will be borrowing the Caravel next month during Alumafiesta so I’d like to have it fully debugged before he gets here.  A few hundred miles of towing plus five or six days of camping should shake out the bugs, if there are any. So part of my packing list is a bag of tools and a box of leftover plumbing supplies.  If the plumbing springs a leak, or a gas line needs to be tightened, I should be able to fix it even in the middle of nowhere.

Really, the only part that worries me is the fresh water system.  Leaks are so frustrating and can be subtle, yet devastating.  I tested the plumbing again this week and everything seems fine: no leaks, no problems.  The final step for that system is to sanitize, which is easy.  (The procedure is described on p. 59-60 of The Newbies Guide To Airstreaming.) I took care of that yesterday, and today I’m going to finish most of the packing and do a little dusting inside the cabinets too.  Every time I get in there to pack things I come out with dusty hands; the poor Caravel has sat unused for far too long.

And of course there’s all the stuff that I will have to check on the trailer itself, like the tire pressure.  It all amounts to a lot of prep work for a short trip.  I’ve concluded that it’s really much easier if you use your Airstream frequently, like we do with the Safari.  Leave it ready to go as much as you can, keep the batteries charged and the cabinets stocked with non-perishables, have a dedicated set of tools and utensils that never leave the trailer, and you’ll be on the road that much quicker.  We are starting to work toward that with the Caravel.

The trip will begin on Friday with a long-ish drive to Borrego Springs, CA (380 miles).  I’ll have Internet even in the boondock sites, and probably lots of time to write, so a few blog posts from the road are likely.

Time to fix

We parked the Airstream back in the carport last Tuesday night, spent the night in it (because it was too late to start unpacking), and it has been go-go-go ever since. There’s just so much to do …

I think one of the problems with coming back to home base is that suddenly I have no excuse to avoid the projects waiting for me here.  I thought last winter season was busy, but already this one is looking like a record-breaker.

The Airstream Safari came back from its summer trip with many little things on the Squawk List, including:

  • belt line trim replacement needed
  • bathroom fan with broken handle
  • MaxxFan with loose motor/fan assembly
  • cabinet trim by refrigerator needing tweaks
  • loose attachment of the galley countertop
  • loose section above bathroom door
  • … and a few other things

As you can see, most of these items have to do with things working loose over time.  A rolling house tends to have such issues, and after six-figure mileage and eight years of heavy use I’m not surprised to have a few.  But these are generally not hard repairs.  Often it’s just a matter of a longer wood screw where an original one worked its way out, or a bit of glue or Loc-Tite.  I see a few hardware store trips in my future, along with a few hours of weekend puttering.

I plan to make a few of the jobs harder than they have to be, in the interest of preventing future problems.  For example, the loose galley countertop is just a matter of a few screws and brackets that could be fixed in a few minutes , but I want to remove the stove and thoroughly inspect the area under the counter to see if anything else is going on under there.  Instead of just re-attaching the loose under-counter brackets, I plan to install some of my homemade aluminum L-brackets (leftover from the cabinetry job of last spring) which are much lighter and offer more area to spread out the stress.  At the same time I will probably also install the countertop-mounted Nu-Tone Food Center that has been sitting in our storage room for a couple of years.

This is the way I’ve always done it.  I see repairing things on the Airstream as a series of opportunities to improve the Airstream.  Not only do I learn more about how it’s put together, the eventual result is far better in many ways than a factory-original model, since it’s customized to our needs.  This builds confidence (assuming everything I’ve touched isn’t going to rattle apart again).  Someday, when we tow over miles of washboard road at Chaco Culture National Monument, or take a long gravel road in Alaska, I’ll appreciate the extra effort.

That means the eight or ten repairs the Safari needs will likely take through October to complete.  And there’s still the Caravel, waiting patiently in the carport to have its plumbing finalized.  That project has been on hold since April, and it’s high time I got back to it.  So already I’ve got Airstream work to keep me busy for a while.

But who needs an Airstream project when you’ve got an old Mercedes to fix?  The 1984 300D has been sitting here waiting for its share of attention.  Everything was working on it when we headed out in May, so I think over the summer it started to feel neglected.  Not seriously neglected —it still started up promptly even after sitting a month—but just the car apparently felt the need for some TLC because three things failed on it:  a climate control actuator, the trip odometer, and the clock.  All of those problems are at least tangentially related to the heat.

You can’t have an old car like this if you can’t fix most of the things yourself.  It would have killed me in repairs already if I had to take it to the local Der Deutscher specialist for every little thing.  So I got on the phone to Pierre, and read the Internet forums, and figured out how to fix the climate control actuator and the clock this week.  That took a few hours, while the Airstreams both looked sullenly on (I swear, you can tell that they are jealous, it’s like having three young children all vying for your attention).  The odometer fix will have to be done later because I’m just about out of time for repairs at the moment.

This week has to be mostly dedicated to “real” work, by which I mean the stuff that pays the bills.  (Isn’t it ironic that the “real” work generates money and the “fun” work costs money?  If only it were the other way around.)  Right now the Winter magazine is in layout and I’m collecting articles for Spring 2014.  At the same time, the R&B Events team (which includes me) is busy trying to get tentative programs for Alumaflamingo (Sarasota FL) and Alumafiesta (Tucson AZ) put together, and that’s a big effort.

And we’re working on a new iPad Newsstand app for Airstream Life, which I hope to have released sometime in the first quarter of next year.  When it comes out, you’ll be able to get most of the back issues (at least back to 2008) on your iPad and read them or refer to them anytime.  That way you can carry all the knowledge around in your Airstream without also carrying fifty pounds of paper.  I’ve been testing demo versions and it’s very cool, so this is an exciting project.

Finally, I’ll be presenting a slideshow at Tucson Modernism Week next Saturday, October 5, at 2:00 pm, about my favorite over-the-top vintage trailer customizations.  It’s basically the best of the interiors we’ve featured in the magazine over the past several years.  The pictures are beautiful and inspirational.  I had forgotten about how incredible they are, until I went through the old magazines and re-read the articles.  My talk is free and open to the public, if you happen to be in the Tucson area right now.  If you aren’t, I might present the slideshow again at Alumafiesta in February.

The hangar queen

I mentioned in the previous blog that our 1968 Airstream Caravel is a bit of a hangar queen.  I’ve come to accept that, viewing it as (a) an heirloom for Emma to use someday; (b) an investment vehicle (so far a spectacularly bad one, since we have more invested in it than market value); (c) an interesting ongoing project to advance my general “handyman” education.

The last rationalization is probably the best one.  The Caravel has advanced my education in woodworking and plumbing in particular.  Someday I may even put those skills to use in the house, although I never seem to be as motivated to work on house projects.  Houses are sort of boring—they don’t move.

In the next few weeks the Caravel will get some more attention, this time in the area of the A-frame.  I bought a replacement hitch jack for it because … well … to be honest, because of a long series of stupid events.  Let’s see if I can get this all straight:

  1. Last February the propane regulator began to leak, so I bought a replacement.
  2. The replacement regulator had the red/green “flags” which indicate if the tank is empty or full on the “front” of the regulator, but on the Caravel the regulator is supposed to mount facing the rear.  This meant that the flags were not visible.  The spare tire blocked any view of them.
  3. Rather than returning the regulator for one with the flags on top because that would be “too much trouble,”  (and therein lies my big mistake) I decided to mount it facing forward.  This was more complicated than it would seem.  The job required numerous hardware store trips, a longer main hose, replacement “pigtail” hoses to the tanks, a pair of brass elbow fittings, four stainless screws, and numerous washers so that the mounting hardware would fit correctly.
  4. With that job finally done, I discovered that the handle of the manual crank hitch jack collided with the new regulator, making it very difficult to raise and lower the trailer’s tongue, so I decided to replace it with a power hitch jack.
  5. When I attempted to remove the original hitch jack, I discovered that it had been welded into place.

And that’s where I am today.  I didn’t have time to deal with it back in April and May, when I was doing a lot of work on the Safari, so I set the problem aside.  Now that I’m back—and lacking a tow vehicle—the only way to proceed is to get a mobile welder out here to cut out the old hitch jack and then re-weld the necessary plate for the new one.  I’ve made a few calls and should have someone out here in the next week or two.

If I were smarter I would have simply returned the propane regulator for the right one, and avoided this entire mess.  This debacle is going to end up costing about $400 counting all the miscellaneous parts, welding, and jack.  But at least I can console myself with the knowledge that now I’ve got a fancy power hitch jack on the trailer that we never use.

In the interest of continual investment for little actual return, I have also taken the dinette table out of the trailer to have it re-made.  The table we have currently was overbuilt by a well-meaning friend and weighs far too much to be easily handled when converting it into bed mode.  The same shop that built the black walnut countertop for the Safari a few months ago will duplicate the Caravel dinette top in poplar, which should be considerably lighter.  I’ll shape it, finish it, and attach the hardware in the next few weeks.

The plumbing project that I began last spring is about 80% complete.  With the hot weather this time of year, I’m not inclined to go out to the carport to finish that job, even though the Caravel has air conditioning.  It feels like a job to be done in the fall, when we return from Airstream travel and the Tucson weather is perfect for projects.  Around here, that means November and early December.

Someday soon this trailer is going to be absolutely perfect.  I’ll have to take it somewhere.